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A Historic Black Theater Steps into the Future

A Historic Black Theater Steps into the Future Image
  • Posted on 16th Jun, 2022 06:47 AM

National Black Theatre's Sade Lythcott and Jonathan McCrory join playwright Ngozi Anyanwu to discuss what comes next for the iconic institution.

Since 1968, New York’s National Black Theatre has provided a space for Black voices and stories to not only exist, but flourish. Founded by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, a performer, director, and figurehead of the Black Arts Movement, it boasts an important legacy of being the country’s first revenue-generating Black art complex and was recently included in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

To date, NBT has presented more than 350 original theater works that have toured globally, and the likes of Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou have graced its stage. Most importantly, NBT was founded and continues to serve as a space for marginalized storytellers to build community, enrich their craft, and raise the collective consciousness around social and racial injustices through their groundbreaking work.

In 2008, Teer’s daughter, Sade Lythcott, took over as NBT’s chief executive officer and appointed director, producer, and actor Jonathan McCrory as its executive artistic director in 2013. Under their stewardship, the organization has continued to evolve and become an even brighter beacon of Black culture. Currently, construction is underway for their new mixed-use building in Harlem, which will feature a shopping center, new theater, and affordable housing.

To honor NBT’s crucial legacy and celebrate its expansion, BAZAAR.com connects with Lythcott, McCrory, and playwright Ngozi Anyanwu to discuss the role of art during the pandemic, the importance of creative spaces that feel like home, and why NBT is the new American Dream.

Tell us a little bit about the legacy of the National Black Theatre.

Sade Lythcott: The National Black Theatre is the longest continually run Black theater in New York City, founded in 1968 by my late mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, who was one of the four mothers of the Black Arts Movement.

The mission of the National Black Theatre really comes out of the principles of the Black Arts Movement, which really roots Black liberation as the center of all things that we get to produce and build. Her real focal point around Black liberation was tapping into the PTSD of the slave block through the auction aspect of the slave block, which is what she thought was analogous to the audition room. What if it wasn't a self-conscious act, but a God-conscious act of liberation?

The actors in her first company were called Liberators, and she thought, If we push this experiment to the maximum, what would it be like if we empowered Black artists to see themselves as Liberators in conversation with audiences and communities that tapped into what it might feel like to be free? That would spark direct action and activate our audience in a way that was a seductive form of introducing people to activism within their own agency of their life.

Dr. Barbara Ann Teer
Courtesy of NBT

I took over in 2008 when she passed, and Jonathan joined me as co-leadership shortly thereafter in 2013. We have been stewarding the legacy of Dr. Teer and National Black Theatre through a contemporary lens of present-pulse theater making and Black narratives to ensure that the intersectionality of our stories—the complexity of our stories—is told so that we can reveal the fullness and the wholeness of who we are as a people, which often is absolutely a 180 from how we are depicted, still, onscreen and definitely in the news.

Jonathan, what was it about NBT that made you want to join?

As a Black artist, I was always searching for spaces to call my home, spaces to define as my home.

Jonathan McCrory: There's a slogan that Dr. Barbara Ann Teer has that is an invitation to what I wanted when I left NYU with my undergrad degree. It reads, "Welcome to your home away from home." She would welcome everyone at National Black Theatre that way, by saying, "Welcome to your home away from home."

As a Black artist, I was always searching for spaces to call my home, spaces to define as my home. I was searching for an ethos, a pedagogy, that would allow for the brilliance that is me, that is you, that is the future me, that is all of that, the future of us, to be able to see each other, know each other, and come into relationship with each other. And when Sade actually shared with me that mantra, or that space of being what NBT stood for, that really was, as we to like to say, the Kool-Aid that got me really into the cultural matrix of National Black Theatre.

I'm still latching onto what it means to make a Black home for the future of Blackness and of humanness. If home is where your exhale feels the best, as Sade would say, how does everyone that's a part of the matrix of National Black Theatre come in and lean into that curiosity point of home, and actually reposition National Black Theatre as a space of home?

SL: Home for everyone is different, and really it only calibrates around where you feel like you can put your guard down, and your exhale feels the best. For so many of us, that is not our birth home. It is our chosen home and our chosen family.

Ngozi, you were a resident at NBT. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it affected the way you created during that time, and how it's affected your future work that you've gone on to create?

Ngozi Anyanwu: I'd known of NBT for a long time. When I joined, I was very much at the beginning of what is now a flourishing playwriting career. Jonathan had seen a production of my first play, which I self-produced with some friends and my sister, and essentially said to me, "Hey, come be this producing intern, and maybe do your play here, or see what it is to run a theater here."

At that point, I had interned at The Public. I had been a reader for Rattlestick [Theater]. I had very much been in the New York off-Broadway theater scene, but I had not yet seen the inner workings of a Black organization. And so, I was like, "Yeah, let me hang out at NBT and get my hands in everywhere, sit in on rehearsals, help cast plays."

In the middle of that, my playwriting career really took off. Right, Jonathan? I feel like you were there when I got the call for the Humanitas Award, so Jonathan was really there pre-all the fancy stuff. I really saw the trials and tribulations of being a Black organization and was like, "Oh, they need some more freaking resources." You know what I mean?

JM: The beauty of what Ngozi got to experience was the original facility, and in experiencing the original facility, she had this beautiful opportunity to be kind of, as I like to say, baptized, or washed, or cleansed with Dr. Teer's, I think, ultimate journey into how art can radically transform the heart and minds of folks.

: When you get there and you see everything, it also—as an artist who works in just many different spaces and navigates many spaces—it also just gives you the confidence to walk into any space and take that with you. You go in there, and you go, "Okay, I know I have a home, and I know that I can also emulate this too. I can also be a home for people."

And so, for me as a playwright, as a director, as a performer, I always now really do think about how am I being a welcoming space. If I'm walking into the Atlantic [Theater Company] and I'm employing my other actors as a playwright, how do I encapsulate what I've encountered?

Funding for the arts is being increasingly cut. What do you say to people who are skeptical about the necessity of these types of spaces in the future?

JM: During the shutdowns throughout the pandemic, art was the thing that helped make sure our various spaces—our living rooms, our corners, our outdoor spaces—were filled with life and filled with the vibration that allowed for us to remember, especially in New York, why we chose to live here. Why we are continuing to think and imagine differently.

We have a show running right now called Fat Ham, and what's really quite remarkable is that I think people are leaning into the presence of joy inside of theatrical space because they need joy right now. To be liberated inside of a joyful, laugh-filled space where you are hearing other people laugh—there's a healing there. It's healing to find that common bridge, and theater does that like no other art form ever will.

The necessity of theater is that it helps to build microcommunities that share a common experience that opens up the heart, awakens the mind, and allows us to see a future in a nuanced way that we potentially never saw before. Art has shown us its unique value through the pandemic, and art is showing us as we get out of the shutdown the need to help us triage the psychic distance that the words social distancing did.

Jillian Walker’s SKiNFoLK: An American Show at NBT, 2020.
Maria Baranova

SL: I would just say that art has always been a catalyst for change. It's incredible to be in a conversation right now with someone like Ngozi who was been incredibly productive throughout the pandemic. The gift and magic of artists is that they are able to translate what we're all experiencing in a way that brings folks together. I truly believe that the way that we make systemic change starts at home. So this idea that through storytelling, you can change the hearts and minds of folks, policy soon follows.

A show like Fat Ham is not only a joyous story, but to tell this Black Southern queer story while legislation is being passed that says you can't say gay in Florida, we as artists and cultural institutions have this incredible opportunity of having heart-centered conversations that begin to shape the culture by which folks see themselves and are able to see all of our humanity.

The gift and magic of artists is that they are able to translate what we’re all experiencing in a way that brings folks together.

The University of Pennsylvania has been doing lots of studies on various communities, New York City in particular, and arts and culture drive down crime, so public safety is increased with the proximity to arts and culture. Education numbers go up when students are exposed to art programming. Mental health issues are combated through the arts, whether it's arts therapy or the exposure to arts. When we think about our community of the deaf and disabled population, they find access to the fullness of the textures of humanity through the ability to experience themselves in the ways that the kind of storytelling that arts and culture does.

Ngozi, what role do you think Black spaces such as the National Black Theatre will play in the way that theater is created and enjoyed in the future?

NA: Essentially, I think what has always happened is that Black art, Black music, has always been the pioneer, and then other places, institutions, bite off of those things. I'm hoping that other organizations start pouring resources into Black institutions, not just taking from them, not just taking their artists, not just taking their ideas. What I'm hoping is that artists will want to go into that place, and then also pour back into that place.

SL: I can't remember if it's Martin Luther King or Malcolm X that said integration is like running into a burning house. I think we have firsthand experience that the American Dream is a nightmare for many of us. Folks are having more conversation about self-care, and in the rest and restoration of those meditations, they find that they want to be able to feel safe. As the news amplifies that you're not safe at church and you're not safe at grocery stores and you're not safe in schools, one thinks, Where does my exhale not only feel good, but feel safe? Black spaces and Black cultural spaces have become our churches. They have become our living rooms. They have become all of these things.

Spaces like NBT need to be protected, because we are the new American Dream.

It's not about the place, it's about the idea that we are forever holding this really big space for all of us to be fully, totally, and wholly Black. Spaces like NBT need to be protected, because we are the new American Dream, a bastion of liberation and freedom sans a white lens. I think that that feels really good right now where nothing feels safe.

How do we protect spaces like NBT while sharing them with wider communities? Do we want to share them with wider communities? Whiter communities? Or do we want to keep it to ourselves? I don't know the answer, but I'd love to hear from you all.

JM: I think it's a very great question. NBT has a prudent track record of both of them showing up. One allows for this experiment of creating this beautiful oasis that has a fortress to it, and the other one has a narrative of creating a beautiful oasis that has an invitation to it. I would lean into the invitation of it all, only because race is a construct that actually divorces us of an indigenous practice.

Just because all of us on this Zoom come from the Black or the African tradition, we all have different relationships to Blackness. And those different relationships to Blackness are our own indigenous IP. Race says that I'm supposed to know you, but I might not actually know you. So then, I'm actually creating harm by putting that swath over it, versus saying that my people, who might not all have my same skin tone, have my same passion, care, and clarity, and vision for humanity to win.

If the quest is to unleash soul, soul doesn't have a color. If I want to see humanity win and not an individual race and not another kind of supremacy win, and I don't want to create supremacy with another name or from another vantage point, then I also have to reckon with the ways in which I even curate, cultivate, and live in an anti-Blackness POV. And if I'm not willing to reconcile that also, then I'm, again, going back to that place that I'm putting the swathiness saying that because I'm Black, I create no harm, when actually, I'm human, and humans create harm because of the conditions in which they're birthed out of.

: It's actually essential that our audiences not only look like us, they look like the world. Not because of the validation that may come, but the idea that we don't want to just preach to the choir, we want to preach to every choir. And coming into that relationship with our soul journey allows folks to see themselves in the journey, and then we all can eventually get free.

Liza Jessie Peterson’s The Peculiar Patriot at NBT, 2018.
Courtesy of NBT

NA: I just have an even bigger question, which is, How do we not have to walk into a space where we feel like we have to protect this thing? I think we're so used to people taking that it's easy to walk into a space and be like, "I have to worry that you're going to take from me." But at the end of the day, it's like, "How do I, as an artist, liberate myself to know that my job is actually to give it away?" I cannot control who takes in my gift. I cannot control who identifies with it, who is honored by it, who writes me a wonderful letter, who wants to produce it. My job is to share this.

How do we, as Black people, really get to this place where we're not so worried about other people, when really our job is to share this work? It really is to spread the gospel of our hearts and do it wherever we can, however we can, as fervently and as honestly as we can. Double down on what it is that you believe, what it is that you're trying to say, and that's the only way you can protect yourself.

What’s really important about National Black Theatre is that it awakens the consciousness of what is possible and turns the impossible into possibility.

How do you hope future generations will view and utilize a space like NBT?

JM: What's really important about National Black Theatre is that it awakens the consciousness of what is possible and turns the impossible into possibility. For Black dancers, the ability to know that there's an Alvin Ailey working at the realm and the scale at which Alvin Ailey works creates possibility. Even if they never work at Ailey, they can imagine their body, their craft, their company to potentially get to that scale. It creates a different North Star. National Black Theatre is positioned to become that North Star for Black artists. It casts a new ceiling that gets to get cracked. As Ngozi says, advance culture with innovation and also share culture at a wider and more generous aperture.

: I hope it's a blueprint to tell artists and to tell institutions how they can change and how they can pivot, spiritually and artistically.

I'm going to big up my man, Jonathan. There's been such growth and evolution in you that has really made you push that place forward, and Sade, pushed that place forward. And to see, "Oh, you can do a lot in a little bit of time. You can do a lot with no building still. You can do a lot online." You can go from being a place that was seemingly ignored by PWIs, but when quarantine happened, you both really became the leaders in conversation. It's a blueprint for building and growth. When you see that, as Jonathan was saying, you then also begin to ideate and imagine how you, too, can grow.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hearst Media

This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.

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